“Use your time on Earth wisely.”
Adam Leipzig is a “solopreneur” who believes there is always room for improvement. This is an interesting self-assessment when you think about all he has achieved in his career. He is a former Disney executive who was instrumental in the production of one of Disney’s highest grossing live-action films, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. As president of National Geographic Films, Adam was responsible for acquiring the international rights to March of the Penguins, releasing the U.S. version which garnered much deserved critical and commercial acclaim. Adam, with his degree in Literature from Yale University, has made a career out of what he loves—movies. In our interview with Adam, he discusses the people who inspire him, his wildly successful career and the keys to producing one’s very best work.
Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
I am from Los Angeles and I grew up in Reseda, which is in the San Fernando Valley. When I grew up, the street we lived on ended in a dead end, about a block away. All of the blocks surrounding us were orange groves and about a half-mile away was an actual dairy with cows and we used to go there to get milk and bottles. I know it sounds like we grew up in the 1860s but it was really the 1960s. Now, all of those orange groves are tract houses and shopping malls. The street is no longer a dead end. It cuts through into four lanes where the speed limit is 45 miles per hour. Things have changed a whole lot.
Who or what was your biggest inspiration growing up?
My parents were and are my biggest inspirations. My dad is no longer with us but my mom is. My parents were deeply in love and straightforward, upstanding people. Their word was their bond. They believed in fairness, equity, honesty, and hard work. In my formative years, I learned so much of who I am from them.
What was the most important lesson you learned in the early phases of your career?
Never give up, always keep going. I started in theater and moved into film. I’ve made 34 movies and the only reason I was able to make 34 films is because I tried to make 340. So, my batting average is not terribly good but you just keep getting back up and doing it again and again; keep pushing. There are projects I have worked on that took 10 years to get made. You just keep holding a candle for it and blowing on the embers. If you love it, never let the flames go completely out.
I think so much of success is about persistence and when I say success, I don’t mean money. There are really smart people who don’t have success. There are really talented people who don’t have success. There are really beautiful people who don’t have success. But I think it’s all about persistence and not giving up because it just takes so long and you just have to keep going at it. Ask yourself, “do I love what I’m doing?” If the answer is yes, you have success.
Very true. They always say “showing up is half the battle.” At what point in your career did you begin to feel like you had made it?
I feel like I’m still “making it” or at least in the process of making it. I feel that having amazing kids is making it. Being with an amazing woman and partner is making it. I feel like I have those things in my life. But in my career, I feel like I’m always a work in progress.
What would you consider to be your greatest achievement? Anything from your body of work?
The projects from my body of work that feel like great achievements are always the underdog projects that nobody thought were going to work but ended up working. Launching and opening the Los Angeles Theatre Center in the 1980s which is a four-theatre, 1200-seat performing arts complex was pretty cool. It was a gigantic and amazing achievement career-wise.
I am proud of a little movie I did called Honey, I Shrunk the Kids that was supposed to be passed over but instead relaunched the Disney family brand in live-action movies. March of the Penguins, which everybody laughed at me for spending a million dollars to buy a movie about penguins, went on to great success and acclaim.
It always feels great when you have something that not only works creatively and financially but becomes a part of the popular culture.
Throughout your career, you were able to release films like March of the Penguins, Arctic Tale, and A Plastic Ocean that subtly and not so subtly dealt with climate change. Did you create these films because of your position at National Geographic or did you just feel the story needed to be told?
Both. I did not start making documentaries until I came to National Geographic. Previously, everything I made was scripted, live-action feature films. But when I came to National Geographic, I became really interested in documentaries. It rather coincided with the renaissance documentary phase that we are currently still in. Documentaries are so much a part of National Geographic’s DNA that it was only logical that we moved there. So we pivoted in that direction with terrific success.
I think I have a certain skill with documentaries. I have a way of approaching them, of putting them together. A Plastic Ocean is also a signature achievement for me and the team behind it because it was a movie that no one should have watched. Think about it, if you have a choice between watching a Marvel superhero blow something up which is a “good time” and a documentary called A Plastic Ocean which you kind of intuitively know is not going to be a “good time,” what do think most people would choose?
Why would you go see A Plastic Ocean? We opened it on the right day which was the weekend Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. It opened as the number one documentary in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.!
It also got picked up by Netflix. We had a theatrical release as well. It is now in 35 countries and in 25 languages. It has changed more than 100 laws, nationally and locally. The film is still having an impact. Right now it’s on a world tour at U.S. Embassies around the world, courtesy of our State Department.
It’s really extraordinary to have something that is that impactful. I really did not expect it to have the impact it has had. It’s really gratifying.
Photos by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Are you still making documentaries?
Yes, I have one that we are selling now and another that is almost wrapped through post-production. After these, I need to slow myself down a bit because I’m launching MediaU, a new film school, and I’m focusing myself entirely on that.
You’re the Founder and CEO of two media companies (MediaU, Entertainment Media Partners), Publisher and Editor of Culture Weekly, and an educator at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. How do you manage all of your passions without feeling burned out?
I never really get burned out. But I do get overwhelmed. I’ll completely admit to getting overwhelmed on certain days when I look at the long list of things to do. Largely, I’m a “solopreneur.” I don’t have the big staff, the big team, or a giant office. Largely, each one of these projects runs off of my energy and then the energy of a select few people doing very specific tasks very well. All of them are really solopreneurs too and usually doing their own things in addition to collaborations with me.
So I do get overwhelmed, sometimes at the scale of tasks in these different areas. But I think I am pretty good at critical path and triage and knowing what has to be done before other things can happen. I’m also pretty good at prioritizing what needs to be done today and knowing what can wait until tomorrow. I think that helps me a lot.
How do you relax when you’re not working?
Believe it or not, I watch TV and my very favorite channel is the Movie Trailer Channel! I just watch movie trailer after movie trailer. I can sit and watch 30 movie trailers in one go. I love that.
Photo by Tommy Oceanak
What advice would you give to the next generation of filmmakers/producers who would like to get their start in the movie industry?
That whole question is really at the core of what we’re doing at our new film school, MediaU. It is in collaboration with the University of California so when people enroll, they’ll get University of California credits. It is also in collaboration with Slamdance Film Festival. We’re building an ecosystem where learners of all ages, all backgrounds and all levels of resources and experience can learn from each other, and from those who have come before and who might be a few steps ahead on the road ahead and can point out the pitfalls and the cul-de-sacs and the good things you should look out for.
The advice I’m going to give is the whole philosophy of MediaU, which is “do it by doing it.” Don’t make meetings, make movies. Don’t make plans just go do it. Right now, you have in your hand the capacity to make a movie, edit it and upload it to the world. Whether it’s a long movie or a short video, you can do it. You will learn so much by just doing it and you’ll learn so much by just getting the mentoring advice of people who have come before you and also of your peers and other learners.
Sometimes people ask me what they should make, what’s going to be commercial, what’s going to really work. That question is a blind alley because if you’re making something for other people just because you think it’s going to work, you’re probably wrong. If I have had success in my career, it is because I have opted to work with good people on projects I care about. Sometimes they’ve been commercial and sometimes they haven’t been commercial, but I feel good about every one of them. I feel as though every one of them, was a good use of my time.
Time is the only resource that is truly limited in our existence on this planet. There is always more money, there is always another something to do, but we only have the time that we have. So, make good use of your time by being only with good people and only working on things that are the best use of your energies.